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MONDAY BUSINESS

Digital Theater Era Dawning at L.A.'s Egyptian

March 06, 2000|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The digital revolution for the movie industry will begin at one of Hollywood's classic palaces, the Egyptian Theatre.

Engineers, equipment makers, theater owners and even regular moviegoers will be pulled together to test prototypes of digital projection systems that are expected to become commonplace in movie houses in about five years.

The creation of the Digital Cinema Lab will be announced today, and the project will be run by USC's Entertainment Technology Center.

The digital systems promise sharper pictures and richer sound--the movie theater equivalent of DVDs--along with the potential for new kinds of theme-park-style special effects.

By providing a neutral forum for the motion picture industry to evaluate competing technologies, Digital Cinema Lab hopes to speed up the process of setting standards for a new generation of equipment that will project onto theater screens images from computer servers that store movies in digital form.

If things go as planned, in a few years when a studio releases a movie, it won't distribute reels of film. Instead, movies will be delivered over computer networks directly onto servers in each theater. As a result, studios expect to save $500 million a year because they won't have to produce or distribute thousands of movie prints.

"Moving toward digital exhibition is a huge undertaking, and this helps significantly to get the job done," said Curt Behlmer, chairman of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers' digital cinema technology committee, which is devising standards for digital distribution and projection.

Behlmer and others expect the first commercial systems to make their way into theaters in the next 18 to 24 months.

Industry players began taking it seriously in late 1998 after Texas Instruments showed off prototypes of projectors using its newest digital light processing technology. The Texas Instruments projectors create a higher-resolution picture by enhancing the sharpness of individual pixels instead of trying to cram more pixels onto a screen.

"That's when the lightbulb went on and people began to say, 'Yes, there really can be digital cinema.' " said James Korris, the Entertainment Technology Center's executive director.

Those talks led to the idea of creating the Digital Cinema Lab. The lab will focus on technical issues such as data compression, video transport, audio, color imagery and especially security, Korris said.

"The nightmare is that we'll distribute these [digital movies] and some guy will take a laptop into the projection booth, and . . . we'll have [instantly] simplified the task of piracy," he said.

Another important goal is to develop standards ensuring that digital projection systems made by competing manufacturers will be compatible--unlike the current mix of movie theater digital sound systems, including DTS, SDDS and Dolby Digital.

"During the transition, we need a projector for traditional film and a projector for digital. If there's no standard, we would need more than two projectors in each booth, and that is impossible," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners in North Hollywood, which is also involved with the project.

The cost of upgrading theaters is estimated at about $10 billion worldwide, including $3 billion in the U.S. Each theater would need to install a computer server to the tune of about $100,000. Even with a single standard, theater owners aren't convinced they'll be able to recoup their investment, Fithian said.

The lab's current budget is a modest $1 million a year, although it expects to get the additional funding from studio sponsors and from in-kind donations of equipment from manufacturers.

The lab will also charge fees to test equipment for manufacturers and vendors. The Entertainment Technology Center will begin moving equipment into the Egyptian Theatre in April, and the first tests could be conducted by fall.

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